Early on the morning of Oct. 14, 1992, John Collette’s front door was broken down and his home was raided by Drug Enforcement Administration agents intent on taking down a man they believed to be a drug kingpin. After traumatizing his children, tearing his house and business apart and seizing everything from growing equipment to cars to aircraft to money — including $35 from Collette’s 10-year-old son’s wallet — the DEA found only 18 marijuana plants.
The bust sent shockwaves throughout Fairbanks as 12 other people, including Collette’s then-wife and his brother, were arrested and charged as co-conspirators in a major marijuana manufacturing and distribution ring.
Collette posted bail and, facing a possible 20 years to life prison sentence, fled to Costa Rica with his son and daughter in May 1993. He returned to the U.S. two years later, sent his children home to Alaska and was preparing to turn himself in to authorities when he was arrested by federal marshals in Boulder, Colorado.
Collette was sentenced to 11 years in prison and five years of supervised release, which he successfully concluded in 2006. He sued the federal government for the return of items seized in the raid and eventually won a substantial settlement. In 2016 he applied for and was granted a license to operate Ester Horticulture and Research, a limited cultivation facility.
A pilot, inventor, maverick entrepreneur, legendary grower and survivor of the war on cannabis, Collette now spends his days perfecting his design of a thrust-vectoring aircraft propeller and tending to his small crop of plants.
At 72 years old, Collette is lean, energetic and gifted with exceptional intelligence and keen sense of irony. His mellifluous voice rose and fell as he told his story, alternately brimming with humor, picking up speed as he enthusiastically explained scientific concepts, or taking on a measured, sarcastic bite as he discussed the raid and the charges he faced.
Education and opportunity
Collette was born in Minnesota and came to Alaska with his family when he was 4 years old. His father was a construction contractor who helped build the Northward Building, the Nike missile sites and the log cabin on 1st Avenue that now houses the Fairbanks headquarters of the Yukon Quest. Collette graduated from Lathrop High School in 1965 and chose to major in sociology and political science even though his natural talents lay elsewhere.
“I had this inherent ability for engineering and science. I studied that on my own and had a pretty good grounding in it. What I didn’t have a good grounding in was a knowledge of people,” Collette said while sitting in his shop at his Goldstream Valley home.
A poster of a dirigible cruising above an Arctic landscape hung on the wall near a table holding technical drawings of his current project, the Collette Cycloidal Rotor. His son’s dog, Orwell, occasionally wandered in to peer quizzically at his visitor, and Collette kept his laptop handy to check facts and figures as he told his story.
Collette was 10 credits shy of graduating with dual degrees when “the pipeline happened.” He worked on and off as a laborer on the North Slope and spent his money and free time traveling. He eventually married and began building houses for a living.
An avid gardener and inveterate tinkerer with a “huge” interest in alternative energy, Collette began to experiment with ways to prolong the short Interior growing season.
“The problem with agriculture in Alaska is the fact that you can’t get in the ground early enough because the ground’s cold,” he said. “We were using a radiator from a big truck, inside the greenhouse, and heated the water in a barrel and then that went into the ground.”
Collette applied for a Department of Energy grant to further experiment with ways to heat the soil and use it for energy storage and to enhance the growth and reduce the cost of growing things in greenhouses. He was one of the pioneers of geothermal heat pumps and ended up installing more than 2 miles of underground pipe at the operation he named Happy Creek Greenhouse.
Collette’s efforts were so successful that he began producing bumper crops of tomatoes. He soon discovered there was a market in Alaska for high quality produce.
“We were producing 25 tons of the best tomatoes on Earth. We were trying to sell them in Anchorage, and we were going just gangbusters until the recession hit in 1986. And bang! It was a luxury product. We couldn’t sell it in Anchorage, and we had to shrink, shrink, shrink, real fast,” Collette said, his eyes flashing behind his glasses.
A new crop
Collette eventually began growing and selling long-stemmed roses and marijuana in addition to tomatoes.
“When you’re raising small kids, it’s very similar in terms of economics to entering into retirement. Somehow you’ve got to have some sort of a passive income that you can rely on,” he said, noting that he started growing weed as a hobby and never intended to become a major supplier.
“Someone gave me a handful of seeds and I rototilled a small area and cast them out. About a month later I remembered them and found they were 4 feet tall. I immediately cut them down, piled them in my pickup and disposed of them. It was a freak-out, as the state laws were still very much in flux, with the troopers still on the lookout for pot,” Collette said.
Intrigued by the rapid growth and always interested in agricultural experimentation, Collette planted more seeds. Happy Creek Greenhouse was still going strong, so he limited his cannabis production to only a few pounds a year. He increased his grows after discovering he had a knack for producing plentiful amounts of strong, quality weed.
“I had massive yields back then. I was able to get almost a pound per plant. We know from the FBI it was 24% THC, but I didn’t know at the time. We never talked about percentages, we just knew it was kick-ass shit. And people liked it.”
As demand grew, approximately 50% of Collette’s income came from weed sales. He was producing about 50 pounds a year.
Ask any longtime Fairbanks stoner about it, and you’ll be regaled with tales of the strength of Collette’s weed. In fact, it was so strong that Collette found he couldn’t function well as a father and businessman if he smoked the stuff he was selling. To that end, he developed a weaker strain for his own use that he named “Bud Light.” His high-octane product became known simply as “the Collette strain.”
“I wish I would have given it a cool name, like ‘Matanuska Thunderfuck,’ But I didn’t do that, and the idea wasn’t to sell clones or anything. You know, when I got out of federal prison and went to the halfway house, in the first four days, six people told me they had my strain. Everybody was full of shit,” Collette said, noting that his bust caused almost every grower in town to dig up and destroy their plants lest they suffer the same fate as him.
Collette had to start from scratch when he went into business as a legal grower. Since “nobody sells clones of any good product,” he grows his new strains from seeds, a process that can take up to two years. Collette explained the process as he took Alaska Cannabist on a tour of his facility, located just a short drive away from his home.
“We have to figure out what each plant holds, whether it’s a good or bad strain. Remember, you can have different characteristics of effects, too,” he said, using an analogy to explain the concept. Turning to two identical-looking plants growing side-by-side, Collette softly touched a leaf on the one nearest him.
“If you could marry twin girls, this lady may be absolutely wonderful to live with — pleasant personality, musical, a great mother — and then this one over here may drive you completely crazy, even though they’re from the same parents,” he said, pointing to the other plant with a mock grimace. “The same thing happens here. You can have twins with completely different personalities, so you have to figure out which one you want to marry.
“We’re talking about a psychoactive drug, so the grower has a responsibility to make sure that what he’s putting, essentially, in people’s brains has a positive effect. If in any way it should promote psychosis or suicidal thoughts, or wanting to kick your dog, we don’t want to have anything to do with that kind of plant.”
Once he determines a plant has what it takes, Collette propagates the strain by taking clones from each successive generation. “I don’t like mother plants. They don’t last more than a couple of years, and they get old. One of the myths of the industry is that you can’t take serial clones because the genetics will wander, but you can do that for 1,000 years without it wandering.”
Collette said he’s frequently asked to sample other growers’ product but rarely does.
“I know lots of people who grow pot. I’m swimming in pot. People say, ‘Well try this.’ And I say ‘No thank you, I’m working today.’ I’m a lightweight, so I’m not the person to test pot. And I’m too busy. I don’t have days to sacrifice.”
Ester Horticulture and Research’s price sheet currently lists four strains. Green Crack, at 25.17% THC is the strongest and “really not for novice smokers.” Chatanika Skunk, is an earthy-flavored, proprietary version of Green Crack that tests at 25.11% THC. Denali Dream is a new but more potent derivation of Blue Dream and is the result of 27 trials. Denali Dream’s THC is listed at 21.92%. “It is lighter than others and the only thing I can smoke and still get stuff done, like my old Bud Light. Great with a glass of red wine,” Collette said.
The last strain, High CBD Flower, was bred from stock found in a small greenhouse in Ester, and is good for use in medical edibles and ointments. At 8.6% CBD and 8.6% THC, it provides a relaxing high and is abundant in oils and terpenes. Collette no longer grows the strain but still has a good amount in stock. He is in the research phase of a new strain, Gelato, which was created by famed California cannabis cultivator Mr. Sherbinski. Since he needs at least three crops to determine which sibling he likes, Collette estimates it will take a year or more before he’s ready to bring the strain to market.
The changing market
When deciding to enter the legal cannabis market, Collette chose to go with a 500 square foot limited cultivation facility because he had no illusions about hitting a bud-based cash bonanza.
“Remember, there are three or four 20,000 to 30,000 square foot grows, and they’ve got millions of dollars invested, and marketing departments, and the trajectory of the price of pot is going down. Seriously down. Whether they can all make it or not is certainly an open question now. We know that there have already been major failures, and there’s going to be more. We have a very tiny market in Alaska,” he said.
“It’s a challenge. When I was growing illegally 30 years ago I actually figured out what my expenses were. And it was 5% of gross. That’s a 95% margin. Now it’s 70% of margin.”
Collette was able to able to buy back the land where his original operation sat, and his small grow room sits among the ruins of his once thriving commercial greenhouses. Standing outside in the warm morning sun after a tour of the facility, Collette’s gaze turned inward as he reflected on the past and spoke about the future.
“We had 5,000 rose plants here. We were the farthest north rose producer on Earth. It all collapsed down and the feds got it and sold it for cheap and nobody knew how to run anything, so they didn’t even bother to take the snow off. We’re still hauling away trash three years later.”
Squaring his shoulders, he shifted his gaze outward again and gestured dismissively toward the remains of one of the structures before turning to leave. “By the end of summer we’ll have all of that cleaned up.”
A lasting legacy
The raid that forever changed Collette’s life was carried out by roughly 125 law enforcement officers, a response that, even then, seemed over the top for the amount of cannabis he was growing. Though he appears to have come to terms with the havoc the DEA wreaked on his life, some memories of that morning — especially the treatment of his son and daughter — still rankle.
“It was 6 a.m., and we had approximately 50 agents in the house. (My son) was woken with a machine-gun barrel touching his head. Something I will never understand or forgive. Traumatic is an understatement,” he said.
Collette and his co-defendants were flown to Anchorage in small planes and helicopters after their arrest because the government “had the flaky notion that since Fairbanks was a ‘hotbed of hop heads,’ the government could not receive a fair trial,” according to Collette.
That argument failed to convince the court and his trial was held in Fairbanks. Part of his sentence was served at La Tuna Federal Corrections Institution in New Mexico, near El Paso, Texas, a medium security facility Collette described as “by the end, a very violent place.”
Collette credits U.S. District Judge James K. Singleton for his success in taking on the federal government.
“While in prison, through him, I was able to undertake a very intense course in law, via correspondence with him and the government,” Collette said, noting that he was eventually compensated for most of what was seized.
“The stuff was long gone, but the government wrote me a very large check after I proved they had failed in providing due process. The case dragged on for eight years, and the government finally folded when it was clear the law was on my side.”
If Collette doesn’t expect to get rich on his grow operation, and has many other projects to channel his considerable energies into, why is he in the legal cannabis industry?
Like most of his comments, Collette’s answer was many-faceted. Yes, it’s a nice boost to his retirement income, but it also satisfies him on several levels.
“I’d been pursuing the legalization and rationalization of marijuana since 1974, and we finally succeeded at the state level, and so, it was like kind of a celebration actually, of making that political journey. It’s like the government went to therapy, and the United States, the people, recognized that government had been irrational and psychotic about the whole marijuana thing.
“You just have to continue to represent your point of view for a very long time. It’s not always fighting — it’s supporting people who are rational, it’s supporting history, it’s supporting scientists, it’s supporting fact. It’s supporting things that really matter, and if we stop supporting those things that really matter, then really bad things can happen.
When asked if his grow operation is also a subtle, “right back at you” to the federal government, Collette laughed merrily.
“Maybe a little bit, because I sued the feds and won a bunch of money from them. It can be construed as having a ‘fuck you’ kind of thing, but I looked at it as kind of neat. They steal my property, and I sue them in court, get some of it back, and then I take some of that and invest it in pot.”
Contact Alaska Cannabist writer Dorothy Chomicz at 459-7582 or at AlaskaCannabist.com